Growing One by One

As the parable of the mustard seed teaches us, God’s work often develops over time. Let’s zoom out for a minute and reflect on the growth of Christianity throughout human history… Because in many ways, God’s ever-growing family shows what mustard seed faith looks like in practice!

Roughly 2,000 years ago, Jesus started off with only a handful of followers. There were twelve named male disciples, several other women who also followed him, and a few others who experienced Jesus’ miracles firsthand and decided to stick around. All in all, Jesus only had a small group with which to start.

Yet in the years that followed, Christianity absolutely exploded. Churches grew and apostles planted new ones. Even in the midst of systematic persecution by the Roman Empire, Christianity grew like wildfire. We’ve seen this rapid rate of growth in recent times, too, with the Chinese church. For many years, outside missionaries were prohibited from traveling to China. It was a common assumption among outsiders that the church in China had shrunk and most likely disappeared. Yet a couple of decades ago, when authorities eased travel restrictions, outside missionaries soon discovered a hidden, but growing church throughout the country. Christians in China were not counted in thousands (as many had assumed)… instead they were counted in the tens of millions. (Last I checked, some estimates are that there are 54+ million Christians there!).

So how could the church go from a tiny group in Jesus’ day to a big, massive, and expanding one? How could Jesus and his followers have created a movement that spans continents and generations? How could the persecuted underground Chinese church grow into millions upon millions?

The main reason for growth has to do with how Jesus did ministry. After rising on Easter and before ascending to heaven, Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). And disciples don’t just stay disciples by themselves. True disciples share God’s word and make other disciples. To use the mustard seed illustration, we continue to plant and watch God work in the lives of other people. Those whose lives are changed repeat the process with others, too.

To illustrate how this works, it is worth considering a math example. Discipleship and evangelism should never be efforts of addition, but rather an exponential process. When you add numbers together, the end result is obviously bigger than before (2+2+2+2=8). But when we multiply a number, and repeat that process, the outcome is even greater (for instance, 2 to the power of 4, or 2x2x2x2=16).

For instance, if the friend you evangelize comes to church, and then he or she does the same thing, too, both of you reach more people. If you minister to someone and they in turn minister to other people, we see Christianity grow exponentially, because the process continues on. Here’s a small diagram of how Paul did ministry:

As Paul, Timothy, Ephaphras, and others continued to evangelize, they reached countless men and women for Christ. It might seem like you’re only just reaching one person, but what if that individual goes on to impact even more people? That’s how movements work.

It is worth reflecting on these questions this week…

  • Are you reaching people for Jesus?
  • Do the people you show love to develop a desire to share that love with others?
  • Are you being a disciple who makes other disciples?
  • Are you “dreaming big” of growing God’s family?

I find myself asking these questions of myself often in ministry at Concord. It is so important for us to remember to share God with others. It might seem like a slow process and like we are just reaching one person… but hopefully that one person experiences the joy we have, and shares it with the next person in need!


Pastor’s Bookshelf: Hannah’s Child, The Powers That Be

In addition to weekly posts about the sermon, I’m going to start providing brief updates and summaries of books I’ve read! This’ll probably happen every month or so. Part of this blogging practice is for me to keep myself accountable… I’ve been meaning to read intentionally more over the past few months! I feel this helps me better serve Concord as a pastor as I preach and do ministry. So in writing new posts about reading, you can also take a peek into what has shaped me in my studies.

Anyways, here is a brief recap of two interesting books I recently finished…

Hannah’s Child by Stanley Hauerwas

I often reference Stanley Hauerwas in my preaching. He’s a professor at Duke Seminary and one of my favorite authors. In Hannah’s Child, Hauerwas writes a memoir of his life as a child in working class rural Texas, a promising university student, and eventually a career academic theologian. Hauerwas was raised most of his life in the United Methodist Church and talks about how this impacted his life’s trajectory.

The title Hannah’s Child is loosely based off the story of Hannah and her child Samuel in 1 Samuel. As in scripture, Hauerwas’ mother promised to dedicate her child to God’s service. This has deep connections with a central question he wrestled with most of his life: how do you be a Christian in our world? Hauerwas also details his life’s struggles in a brutally honest way, perhaps most notably his marriage to someone with a severe mental illness. He was also named Time’s “Best Theologian” in the early 2000s, and had to navigate a more public life as an “expert” on Christianity. Hauerwas’ argument is that the church must always be a holy witness in our world. That doesn’t always come easy, and requires us to be committed for God’s service.

Cover Image

The Powers That Be by Walter Wink

I always dig into Wink’s articles and video lectures anytime I preach or teach about violence and peace in the bible… so I figured I would read this book since I hadn’t before! The Powers That Be offers readers a paradigm shift for how Christians are called to take Jesus’ words seriously about being peaceful and forgiving. In our world, it is so common to response in-kind to things like hatred, anger, and physical violence. When someone hits or insults us, we almost always hit or insult them back.

Wink offers many compelling theological and biblical arguments for why nonviolence is the way to go in following Jesus. Perhaps most notably, Jesus commands us to “turn the other cheek” in the Gospel of Matthew. As Wink dives into the ancient Greek language and meanings of words, he talks about what this would sound like to Jesus’ audience back then. Jesus uses the word antistenei, which has its linguistic roots in military battle. Stenei was a verb to describe when two armies would systematically march towards other and engage in a horrendous bloodbath. To add the prefix anti- to this root word means that Jesus commands us not to respond as our oppressors or enemies do. In other words, Jesus is saying, “Stop marching towards one another like a bloodthirsty army!” We should stop drawing our swords and instead be more creative in addressing worldly evil. Jesus famously offered the cheek response, as well as offering up our cloak and going the second mile.

I found The Powers That Be to be a very convicting book. Hitting and fighting back are so common in our culture. We think we can kill or hurt our way into a better world. In reality, the gospel teaches us that the only way to truly be saved is to be like Jesus. We often think that bombs, guns, and physical force will give us true security, but salvation is found in Christ alone. His redemption is truly the only way our world can ever change.

Bold Faith

Have you ever struggled with whether or not to share about Jesus with someone?

We all face this struggle in one way or another. Perhaps you’ve been at work and considered sharing your faith with someone in need. Maybe religious topics have come up, and you’ve wondered whether or not to vocalize what you think. Maybe you’ve hesitated being a light, shining city, or house on the rock, as we read about in Matthew 5-7 yesterday for worship.

Will he be receptive of my testimony? Will she be open to what I have to say? If I talk, will it just make things awkward? Will they reject me? Do I even have the right words to say?

This sort of “spiritual anxiety” is somewhat common in our world as many people struggle with it. The history behind our uncertainty has to do a lot with religion’s role in society. We often don’t want to come across as too pushy or forceful. So we may second guess ourselves and decisions when it comes to our identity in Christ and the public around us. We don’t want to sound like an angry, hysterical preacher on the side of a crowded street corner–which is usually the caricature that comes to mind!

Alfred North Whitehead, a famous philosopher from the early 1900s, famously once said that “religion is what you do with your solitude.” Even though Whitehead often criticized Christianity, his definition of religion has undoubtedly impacted countless Christians today. We are often tempted to believe that Christianity is just something “between me and God” and not too public, outspoken, or even vocal.

One of the biggest struggles in the church today is treating Christianity like a solitary exercise. We are tempted to believe following Jesus only affects an hour here and there on Sunday mornings or during a midweek bible study or fellowship meal. Likewise, many church attendees might think it best to just keep quiet the rest of the week.

That’s not what Jesus taught us, however, in something like the parable of the wise and foolish builders. Not only should we put Jesus’ words into practice, but those actions create for us a “house” for other people to see.

You don’t need a bible school degree or even have a mini-sermon planned out to be a witness in our world. As I shared on Sunday, my wife recently showed the love of Christ to an overworked and stressed-out customer service representative by speaking kind, calming words. It is truly a huge mistake to assume that religion is just our “quiet time” or what we do with our solitude. Following Jesus means we are called to be vibrant witnesses of God’s kingdom. We do that by preaching the words of Jesus. We also do that by following in his steps and living out his actions.

The Hope of the Cross

“Christ Pantocrator” tile mosaic in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey. This classic icon is often placed in large, expansive areas like ancient church walls and domes, symbolizing the almightiness and universal majesty of Christ.

There’s a lot of irony with Christian symbols like the cross. We see crosses in so many places. They are obviously in churches, but are also around our necks, printed on bumperstickers and shirts, or used in Facebook posts. We might even see the cross symbol so often that it may even lose meaning.

In Jesus’ time the cross was anything but a hopeful symbol. Political prisoners and the worst kinds of criminals often had the fate of crucifixion on a cross. The Romans often left these victims of capital punishment hanging in public (even after dying) in order to strike fear into the population.

If we keep this historical background in mind, having a cross necklace around your neck today is basically like having a guillotine or electric chair! It was literally a tool of death used frequently by the Roman empire.

But this reveals to us one of the radical, profound truths of Easter. Of all things, a cross actually can give hope. Instead of being a symbol of death, the gospel subverts its meaning to illustrate how God operates. Here’s how Colossians 1:19-23 puts it:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him,20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven,and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

Notice the subversive, paradoxical language of Colossians. God made peace through blood shed on the cross, a tool of state-sponsored violence. Peace came about through the horrific events of Good Friday. Easter morning gave humanity the gift of salvation and hope for a better future–both life here and now, as well as what happens after we die. We too can be raised into new life because of Christ.

God used the violence of the cross to bring about peace. In other words, Jesus took the worst humanity had to offer (humiliation, injustice, violence, crucifixion, etc.) and brought about salvation from it. The good news of Easter is that God took the sinfulness of the world and brought about salvation. God took a cross and brought about everlasting hope.

The Crucified God

Quote from the philosopher Epicurus articulating one of the classic atheistic arguments about evil

Countless people wrestle with the problem of evil. If God is so great, why would God let suffering happen? Even though I preached yesterday about how we live in a sinful world (and that this obviously leads to worldly suffering), the question still remains: Couldn’t God at least decrease some pain, suffering, and evil? Maybe fewer famines, tragic accidents, or wars?

It is certainly possible to try and “explain away” the problem of evil and suffering. There are countless ways Christians often formulate solutions to evil. One of the most popular arguments is that God allows suffering only when it leads to a “greater good.” Perhaps you’ve heard of this reasoning before:

  1. It is morally OK for God to allow some instances of evil if it results in a greater good in the future.
  2. There is evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, God will bring about greater good from the evil we witness

Another “explanation” for evil is highlighting the importance of free will:

  1. Humans are free creatures, able to choose between right and wrong.
  2. True love only exists when someone has a choice.
  3. Therefore, God allows humans to have free will, and that often results in humans doing evil.

One of the huge problems with getting wrapped up in formal arguments about evil is that we often stop being understanding and empathetic with one another. Sure, it might make sense to believe in “greater goods” and human free will, but in the midst of life’s dark valleys, these logical statements rarely offer up much comfort. Perhaps you’ve prayed and felt like God was nowhere to be found. Having someone tell you to look for a silver lining can sound kind of calloused. Perhaps you’ve lost someone you’ve loved, either through death or even a broken relationship. To hear someone say “Well… free will can be tough, but that’s the way it is!” would be incredibly insensitive!

So the important think to keep in mind is that when we think about evil, logical arguments can be unconvincing and rarely provide true comfort. Sure, you may be able to find some assurance in faith that a greater good will come, or that evil is the product of human sinfulness, but how should we understand evil in the midst of our broken world?

Instead of giving us a tight theological argument or explanation about evil, God instead chose to give us a person: Jesus. When we are helping a friend in need (or facing suffering on your own) we must always focus on how Christ comforts us and walks alongside us.

One of my favorite theologians is a guy named Jurgen Moltmann. He was raised in a secular environment, drafted into the German army in World War II, and spent several years in an Allied prisoner of war camp. During this time, he felt so disillusioned with his past life and was especially haunted by how Germany persecuted and committed genocide against the Jewish people and so many others. Fortunately, Moltmann was evangelized by an Anglican chaplain in the prisoner camp and started to read a pocket bible, eventually dedicating his life to Jesus. He later talked about how “I didn’t find Christ… he found me.”

Moltmann’s experiences of World War II shaped a lot of his theology. In his professional studies as an academic theologian, he studied topics like repentance, hope, suffering, and reconciliation. After a war that claimed the lives of 60 million people, Moltmann devoted his life to promoting the forgiveness, peace, and hope of God’s kingdom. Here are some thought-provoking quotes from his book, The Crucified God:

  • “When the crucified Jesus is called ‘the image of the invisible God,’ the meaning is that THIS is God, and God is like THIS.” Colossians 1, one of my favorite bible passages, talks about how Jesus is the clearest picture of what God looks like. Instead of being angry or vengeful, God is compassionate and loving. God even goes to the cross to suffer and die for creation!
  • “God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressors and the oppressed from oppression and to open up to them the situation of free, sympathetic humanity.” God took the absolute worst the world had to offer on Good Friday and transformed that into redemption. By freely suffering and dying for you and me, God gave us the greatest example of love. Both the oppressed and oppressors alike can experience God-given salvation and transformation into new life.
  • “Jesus humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” Jesus entered into our human experience, and that includes suffering, too.

As I reflected on Moltmann’s life and testimony this week, I was struck by several things. In the midst of our broken world, Jesus Christ knows what it is like to feel pain and suffering. When faced with evil in our world, arguments from philosophy or theology will probably not give you much comfort. But Jesus can… he’s been there before and knows what it is like! Remember the compassionate words of Jesus from Matthew 11:28-30:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Following God Through Dark Valleys

I preached a bit shorter than normal on Sunday to make time for our prayer time at the end of the service. During the sermon, however, I briefly referenced one story from my own life about experiencing silence from God, so I figured I would explain a bit more about my own testimony for this week’s blog post!

About 10 years ago I was in college and incredibly active with several ministries. I would go to Sunday school and church every Sunday. I went to a home group meeting during the week, which was a discipleship group with people from church. On Wednesdays I would go to another area church for a big worship gathering geared towards college students. And to top it all off, I was studying philosophy and religion, so my class work often dealt with a lot of theology and Christian history.

It seemed like every day I filled my schedule with spiritually-enriching work, whether that be praising God on Sunday morning, to reading and studying to prepare for seminary. I felt like I was constantly growing. It all seemed to be working well.

But then I woke up one morning and felt absolutely spiritually empty inside. It was an eerie feeling. I prayed, but didn’t feel any sort of comfort. I tried listening to music, but that wasn’t much help. I even tried talking with close friends about what I was going through, but that didn’t work either. It felt like God was on “mute”, so to speak–no answers, no feelings, no emotions, nothing at all. And this was such an alarming thing for me to experience. I had depended on God all those years before this moment. Had God abandoned me all of the sudden?

Upon reflection, this season of my life came about as a result of a few things. A friend of mine had committed suicide over a year before then, but at that moment I think I was finally beginning to process what happened. People in my main friend group kind of had a falling out with one another, so I was a bit in limbo with who to rely on for support. I also witnessed a close friend make some terrible life decisions, and felt like I had let him down because I wasn’t able to prevent the pain he now experienced. I was set to go on a summer-long mission trip to Uganda and Kenya, but suddenly got “cold feet” and ended up cancelling this plan. All these things came together to lead me into a spiritual wilderness.

I would pray and beg God to show me signs, but those prayers felt unanswered. I continued my weekly schedule of going to church activities, but it all felt like I was going through the motions instead of deepening my faith. Even worse, at times when I confided in someone else about my spiritual disillusionment, they couldn’t really sympathize with me. One individual even said that I lacked faith because of what I was going through–I supposedly had “failed” a test from God and feeling spiritually distant was my punishment.

I eventually emerged out of this spiritually dark time after about six months. It seemed like an eternity, but during this time I learned several invaluable things:

  1. God exists regardless of whether I feel God’s presence. We are often very emotional creatures as humans. We think love exists only if we “feel” it in a particular moment. Yet we all know that love may still be present if we don’t feel butterflies in our stomach! The same is also true with our relationship with God. Even if you feel hollow or empty, rest assured of God’s provision and guidance, even when you feel like God is nowhere to be found. God is still moving in our lives even if we don’t immediately see the end result.
  2. Be honest with God about your emotions. We often think we should only offer up our happy thoughts to God. This often leads us to fake our relationship, especially if other Christians seem to be happy with God and we don’t feel that way. In reality, life is a lot messier, filled with mountaintops, dark valleys, and everywhere in between. One thing I learned from not feeling any direction from God for this half-year was that I needed to be more authentic with how I relate to God. God already knows my heart, so why try to fake it if I’m going through a tough time? Being honest in the midst of sorrow led me to a deeper relationship with Christ.
  3. God doesn’t cause sin to happen in your life, but that doesn’t mean God won’t work through difficult circumstances. We will talk next week about the problem of suffering. Even though I don’t believe God caused lightning bolts to “strike” in my life, God was still there assisting me along the way. I learned countless things about myself and who God is. Because of some of the things that happened during this season, I was actually introduced to my wife for the first time. I think God can use any period of wilderness to bring about more redemption.

You might feel extremely close to God right now, and if that is the case, then keep on working at that relationship to endure the day trials and tribulations come. But regardless of whether you feel on fire, apathetic, alone, or even scared, know that God is with you and will never forsake you, even when you don’t feel him.

The Uplifting Cycle of Serving Others

What brings fulfillment in life? If you were in church on Sunday, you know that question has a simple answer given to us directly by Jesus in John 13: We experience fulfillment through serving one another.

It is such a simple, yet so difficult command for us to actually live out. We like to look out for ourselves. We often obsess over our own personal problems. We think that fulfillment can somehow come through personal possessions or status. But Jesus gives us a reality check to serve one another–to wash the feet of others as Jesus did–in order to live life to the fullest.

In seminary I studied the work of a Roman Catholic theologian named Gustavo Gutierrez. Gutierrez began his career studying medicine and psychology. He eventually turned to matters of religion and spent much of his life working among poor people in the country of Peru. Serving people in need truly shaped his life and theology.

Gutierrez was known for his advocacy for serving others, and that theologically speaking, God always calls us to care for the “least of these” (a reference to Matthew 25 and Jesus’ teaching on the sheep and the goats). One of his famous phrases is that God has a preferential option for the poor. God calls Christians to specifically seek out the poor and marginalized in order to raise them up into new life.

That might sound kind of odd for us to reflect upon. After all, doesn’t God love all people? Isn’t God impartial and doesn’t prefer one group over another? Shouldn’t we also reach non-poor individuals, too?

All these questions might make a point in some sense, but we need to reflect more on what it means to have compassion and to share with others. The writings of Gutierrez and others like him have a strong biblical foundation. God calls us to seek out the needy in all circumstances. Jesus specifically said that the poor are blessed in the Sermon on the Mount. He also taught in Luke 14 that we ought to be hosting the outsiders and showing God’s love to them. And as Jesus commanded, we are to “wash the feet” of others in many ways, from feeding the hungry to being a friend to the lonely. All these “needs” involve people who are “poor” in one way or another–that’s why the need exists in the first place!

When we serve others in need, it is not because we should somehow love them “more” than other people in our life. But when we serve the needy, we potentially raise them up spiritually through the good news of the gospel, as well as providing material aid like with outreach projects. In turn, the people we serve experience a more fulfilled life because of God’s love through us. When that person is “uplifted” through our own Christian outreach, we then have to go back out and begin the process again, this time with other people who are in need. We always have a job to do to reach more people and grow God’s family. I think that’s what Gutierrez meant when he said to prefer people who were poor. We should prefer to have more brothers and sisters in Christ!

God gave us a vision for an uplifting cycle in how we do outreach. By loving people and serving those in need, we work to raise everyone up. As others experience the joy and peace of Christ, hopefully they too will join in our mission for the kingdom of God and reach new people.

Is Love Your Solution?

Pastors often struggle with preaching on very common bible passages. You’ve probably heard our gospel text yesterday before–we should love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourself. Christians have usually heard these commandments before, since it is such a basic tenet of our faith. So how can we hear the words of Jesus anew? How can we avoid cliches and thinking we already understand this message?

One practice I have to solve this potential issue is to read commentaries on the bible. Theologians, pastors, or experts in biblical languages write these texts to help shine new light on scripture.

This week in my studies, I was drawn to the writing of Rev. Gemechis Desta Buba, a Lutheran pastor from Ethiopia. My wife and I had volunteered in Ethiopia after college for a couple of months, so his words really resonated with me and they hit close to home. Here’s what Buba had to say about Jesus’ “greatest commandment” teaching:

I was born and brought up in a country called Ethiopia in the eastern part of Africa. This is a country which claims to have a history of 3,000 years…This country has never seen a single day without war until today. War has been the national trademark, part of the national news, and it is always included in daily talks on the streets of the nation. [I’ve witnessed that…]

  • Hatred breeds hatred.
  • Bloodshed breeds bloodshed.
  • Violence produces violence.
  • Injustice begets misery and lawlessness.

When children are born and brought up in such a place, they tend to believe that this is just something to be seen as a viable option and as a normal pattern of relationship for people to engage in. Violence seems to be a way to go, even a justifiable way of settling differences by securing superior status over the one on the other side of the fence. This is the way I was brought up into mature manhood.

Today millions of children across the continent of Africa, the Middle Eastern region, across Eastern Europe and within the inner cities of western Metropolitan cities of western nations are being brought up into becoming mature men and women under the direct influence of cultures of violence and dysfunctional social structures. These environments are populating our world with citizens characterized by embedded hostility and innate inclinations towards invoking violence as a viable means of resolving differences.

His point is that we live in a world that does not promote love.

I’ve preached before on this deep cultural belief that violence saves. We tell ourselves so many twisted things, like “Just hit back harder” and to “Just show someone you’re tougher.” We think violence gives us salvation instead of love. From war-torn countries like Ethiopia, to down the road from Concord Church here in America, we often believe that hostility, isolation, and hate are legitimate values.

We think we can solve our problems by avoiding God and ignoring our neighbor in need. We are taught by the forces of sin in our life and society that we should do the opposite of what we read in scripture.

We often disobey God. We view love as a sign of weakness. To show vulnerability to someone means we risk our personal pride. To make time for God goes against all those messages of our culture. To show love to other people who aren’t your kin just becomes a hassle. Even to show love to family can be frowned upon—family feuds and disagreements are so common.

So ask yourself this as you reflect on Sunday’s message… is love you solution? Is loving God and loving neighbor the focus of your life?

It is important to hear Jesus’ words afresh. When Jesus talks about loving God and loving neighbor, this is some radical stuff. It goes against our human intuition and what we often want to do.

Human Expectations

You may be familiar with the countless prophecies of the Old Testament. Sometimes, prophets warned God’s people to repent and remember their covenant. Other times, a prophet would act as a literal “mouthpiece” of God, articulating what God’s heart looks like in a theological sense. And still other times, prophets spoke about events that might come in the future. This is probably the most common understanding of prophecy, and it is worth considering as I elaborate more on Sunday’s sermon.

Christians throughout the ages have argued that many of these Old Testament prophecies point towards the coming of Jesus in the gospels. When we read about a “suffering servant” in Isaiah, we make the connection with Christ suffering on the cross. When God speaks through a prophet about reconciling all creation, we understand that to mean God would bring about salvation through the church, instead of a political country like Israel back in the day. In this sense, one of the important purposes of prophecy is for God to proclaim a new reality that will come about in the future.

Jesus famously quoted Isaiah 61 in Luke 4 as he began his ministry:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus essentially claimed that prophecy in the temple that day long ago–and I’m sure the people were very excited. As we saw on Sunday, in Matthew 16 Peter talked about how many ancient folks assumed Jesus to be a prophet or a great leader. Such expectations were common during biblical times. Many were well aware of Isaiah’s words about God’s coming kingdom. But the problem many faced during the time of Jesus was that they had very narrow expectations for a messiah.

If you read more of Isaiah 61, it is possible to interpret this messianic prophecy as one where a “savior” would overthrow Caesar or some other leader. (Keep in mind that the Roman empire occupied the holy land at the time). So there were many devout Israelites who believed that the true messiah would be a strong military leader who would bring about liberation. We often overlook the other verses in Isaiah 61, but they do arguably support this political revolution:

  • v. 2b “[to proclaim] the day of the Lord’s vengeance.” Surely a messiah would bring God’s punishment on Israel’s enemies!
  • v. 5 “Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyards.” In other words, Israel would enslave others for their enjoyment and prosperity.
  • v. 6b “You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast.” Many interpreted verses like these to mean that finally, Israel would rule over all other nations.
Stonework of the Maccabean Revolt, an uprising before the time of Jesus.

All this is preface to say that Jesus didn’t exactly meet the expectations of many people during his ministry on earth. Jesus announced that God’s day had come, but that it would be blessing instead of a day of vengeance. Many people assumed that Jesus would lead a violent revolt against Roman occupation. I imagine a lot of people were excited to see what this Jesus character would do, and if he would truly make Isaiah 61 a literal reality. Other “messiahs” had tried and failed, so would Jesus be different? I think this is why Jesus was ultimately sent to the cross during his public trial–people saw how different he was and that he wouldn’t physically bring freedom from Rome.

We still struggle with the same temptation today, too. We like to hoard God’s blessings to ourselves instead of sharing them with others. We are perfectly content with having enemies, instead of praying for them. And we like to think we are fine just the way we are, instead of repenting and asking God for forgiveness. We want prophecy according to our own standards, instead of God’s standards and plan.

But instead, Jesus is so much more than our human expectations. We might be tempted to define Jesus as a tool to suit our own ends, whether that be at the ballot box or in our bank account. We love to use God for our benefit instead of serving Christ alone.

We must always remember that Jesus’ lordship is much greater than our earthly expectations. Jesus is more than a man, teacher, tool, or get-out-of-hell-free-card. Jesus ought to be our savior, guiding us each and every day. We will still face adversities, tragedies, and challenges in life, but never forget that Christ is with us.

Thoughts on Gun Violence (Yet Again)

It seems as though with every national tragedy or crisis, we rarely have a biblical reaction to unfolding events. Instead of looking to scripture for hope, we rush to our usual political talking points. Instead of praying for people, we yell at one another. And instead of operating out of the love of Christ (who calls us to pray for and love our enemies), we get fearful above all else and think that punishing criminals will bring us salvation.

People in the Old Testament struggled with idolatry and false gods. There are countless examples of humanity’s infidelity to God, from Aaron and the golden calf in Exodus, to Baal worship during the time of the kings. I mention idolatry because I don’t think these various idols exactly “died off” once time passed. Of course, there is obviously no First Temple of Baal in Lonoke, but we still have these false gods in our lives.

A modern day example of idolatry has to do with the golden calf of Exodus. It seems as though the ancient cow got a makeover and upgrade, and now has a permanent home on Wall Street. I think this is a subtle example of how we idolize sins like greed. We desire more money, resources, and power above all else… just like a charging, unstoppable bull.

Author Gary Wills reflected on this concept of false gods after the Newtown shooting in 2012. He wrote about an ancient deity called Moloch. I find myself coming back to his article with each mass shooting as I process the tragedy.

In the Old Testament, Moloch was a demonic force of absolute chaos and violence. Devotees to Moloch practiced their pagan religion by sacrificing their own children. Specifically, they would burn their young ones alive on an altar fire. This is why some of the laws forbidding Moloch worship in books like Leviticus are so strict and punitive. To pursue this false, evil god meant that you would consider all sorts of deranged violence, including killing your own children.

The Old Testament folks might sound kind of backwards and delusional. But I firmly believe that Moloch-worship is still around today. We may not use that specific name anymore (or have a burning altar), but we still treat violence like an idol. We think that violence can save us–it is a “god.” We simply accept things like murder and assault as tragic realities. We are tempted to treat guns as idols and even develop a deep sense of reverence around self-defense, firearms, rights, and personal property. Idols can make us do some strange things. Moloch in the Old Testament led people to burn children. And violence today leads us to believe that assorted metal, plastic, and gunpowder can give us the ultimate protection and salvation.

The murderer thinks that his or her problems will go away if they just “take someone out.” School shooters think that salvation can come through the media fame and attention they’ll receive after carrying out a horrendous act. We cling to the belief that more bombs can somehow bring about world peace if we just annihilate all the people we don’t like. And even on an individual, everyday level, we think that if our enemy were to just get beat up and humiliated, that would solve our problems. Instead of trusting in God alone, we think that violence offers a solution.

There were 346 mass shootings in 2017. As well all know, violence is of course not limited to these tragic incidents. Over 15,000 die in gun homicides each year. Even more (22,000+) people will use a gun this year to commit suicide (and that number continues to grow). And there are usually several thousand unintentional shootings each year as a result of people failing to exercise proper safety measures.

Violence worship, or Moloch, is indeed very common in our world.

And just like in the Old Testament, Children are probably the most noteworthy victims of this cultural cycle of violence. With each school shooting, children feel less safe. With each suicide or neighborhood shooting, a child loses a mom or dad. With each careless accident, a family may be torn apart in an instant.

I’m neither a politician nor social scientist wonk, so I doubt I can contribute much to the gun debate on a policy level. But as a pastor, it is my job to think theologically about social issues. I am aware of when things creep into our lives as idols. Items like guns can quickly become idols without us even realizing it. Ideas like violence are frequent idols, too.

Christians are called to reject idolatry in all forms. It doesn’t matter if it is the greed associated with a golden calf statue on Wall Street, or even a gun itself. There are countless things in our world that demand our worship, attention, and devotion. In ancient Israel, these idols were physical statues. Today, the same evil powers are still at work, too. Don’t let these things get in the way of Jesus. Christ alone is our true and only hope for salvation.